Thought of the Day: A Realization

While cooking dinner tonight, I suddenly realized something.

You know that episode of The Simpson, ‘You Only Move Twice’, where Homer gets a dream job with a boss who turns out to be a Bond villain (“My department is way ahead of the lasers and germ warfare divisions!”), only for the rest of the family to become dissatisfied with their newly comfortable lives and want to return home?

I just realized that Hank Scorpio being a supervillain has no bearing on the plot whatsoever.

In any other show, or in any other episode probably, the fact that Homer’s dream boss turns out to be an evil madman would be the main point. It practically writes itself (“Dad, Scorpio’s trying to take over the world!”). But here, it’s entirely a running gag that has nothing to do with the main plot, which is just the family being discontented by what they thought they wanted and Homer choosing to give up his perfect job to make them happy. It’s just part of the humor that he never realizes that his friendly and caring boss is an evil genius out to conquer the world.

Felt the need to point that out, since in retrospect it makes the episode even funnier.

That’s Albert Brooks, by the way

Flotsam: New Apartment, No Internet, and Rabbits

1. Last week I realized a nearly five-year goal and finally moved back out into my own apartment. I’ve been too busy setting up to settle in yet, but already I feel the enormous relief and joy of having my own space once again.

2. The chief downside, at present, is that I don’t have any internet. My provider sent a router and set up instructions, but after wrestling with it a bit I got a connection…and found it directing me to a different provider. Two different tech support conversations later (one on the phone, one over a live chat at a nearby coffee shop) yielded the information that the wiring in the junction box was overriding the signal with the previous occupant’s provider. So now they’ll be sending someone out in the middle of the week to perform the necessary offices. Until then, I’m down to using coffee shops and other people’s homes (with the owners’ permission, of course; I’m almost sure that’s what they’re trying to say behind their gags).

3. I’m actually rather glad to have taken a break from internet. I’d been far too attached to it lately and an enforced fast is a bit of a relief, particularly with so much else to be done.

4. During and before the move, I read through an old favorite: Watership Down, the epic adventure novel about the founding of a rabbit warren. I was struck even more this time by the military imagery and tone often employed: at times you could almost lift passages out, tell someone they’re from a WWII novel, and no one would be the wiser. At one point, Holly, the upright veteran, ends up escorting Clover, a freed pet rabbit, out onto the grass to feed, appearing for all the world like a well-bred British officer taking charge of a nervous refugee (she ends up as his mate).

5. Which, incidentally, points to another clever touch. Mr. Adams knows and reminds the reader that rabbit breeding is not like human romance: survival and propagation is the main point, and males will fight over available females. When Clover becomes ‘ready for mudder’ (as Kehaar the seagull puts it), we’re told that the bucks in the warren are all fighting over her, but at that point the narrative has moved elsewhere and so we don’t actually see it (Hazel, our protagonist, upon learning of it, simply comments “I suppose it’ll work itself out” and moves on).

This is a good way to present something that you know the reader won’t like to see. No one wants to watch these characters that we’ve been traveling with and cheering on for half the book getting into a petty squabble over who gets to breed with their one available female. That’s something humans, or at least civilized, western humans of the sort likely to be reading the book, would find repulsive, even granting that the characters are explicitly not human. It’s a point where our sympathy for these animals, as animals, simply will not go beyond. So Adams tactfully keeps it off stage, letting us know that it is happening, but not rubbing our faces in it. We are thus allowed to pass it over as another element of the ‘rabbitness’ of the story without being forced to emotionally engage with it.

See, some things have to happen in a story that would be tonally at odds with the emotions we want the audience to experience, or which would be so alien to their experience as to rip them right out of sympathy, even they are necessary for the setting. One solution, therefore, is to simply allude to it, but not to show it in any kind of detail or dwell upon it. The audience thus gets the information they need, but aren’t forced to navigate delicate and disturbing emotional territory unrelated to the main thrust of the story.

The fact that rabbits fight over mates is part of the setting and premise, but has no real relevance to the real point of the narrative, which is the courage, devotion, and selfless loyalty of the heroes. Therefore, the fact is passed over with a nod, while scenes and incidents relative to the real narrative are depicted with great emphasis and feeling.

You don’t have to show everything or give everything equal weight. Keeping irrelevant or off-tone notes out of sight and out of mind is as important a skill as any other.

Compare – Contrast: ‘Street Fighter’ vs. ‘Mortal Kombat’

The two biggest fighting game franchises of their time (and ours) were adapted into feature films one after another: first Street Fighter in 1994, then Mortal Kombat in 1995.

The question is, why did one work and the other didn’t?

The Structure:

The first and, I think, the most important factor is how the two films are structured, particularly with regard to their characters.

Mortal Kombat has eleven characters drawn from the first two games of the series, plus two cameos (Jax and Shao Khan). Street Fighter has fifteen characters from its game’s roster, plus one who is sort-of based on the sixteenth. On paper, that’s not a huge difference (a matter of two to five, depending on how you want to count), but consider how they are deployed.

In Mortal Kombat you have a structure that looks like this:

We have our three protagonists: hero, secondary hero, heroine. These three join forces pretty early in the film and from then on they spend almost all their non-fighting screentime together. There is a fourth hero in the form of their mentor, Raiden, and a fifth in Kitana, who is kept in the background for most of the film for plot reasons. We see almost the whole story through the eyes of those three characters. If they need to talk with someone, they talk with each other, meaning that when Johnny Cage has some dialogue, Liu and Sonya naturally get some development as well by dint of being the ones who have to react to him. The rest of the cast are aligned with the villain and serve as his henchmen or tools to challenge the heroes.

The structure is thus designed to maximize each character’s role by putting them as close to the center of the story as possible. It’s clear and easy to keep track of. Some of the characters still get marginalized, but everyone has a purpose and often more than one. You couldn’t really cut anyone, even Scorpion and Sub-Zero, without damaging the story.

On the other hand, Street Fighter’s structure looks like this:

Rather than the two camps of the other film, here we have five or six (depending on whether you want to count Dhalsim as separate from Bison). The main heroes are Guille, Chun-Li, and Ryu and Ken, but of those four only Ryu and Ken spend any degree of screen time together. Guille and Chun-Li each have their own duo of supporting characters to talk to, except that said duos are both almost completely extraneous to the story and receive little to no development, meaning that those scenes basically do nothing except to move the plot around and sort of develop the leads, but without the reinforcing feedback of working off of another relevant character. Each of the protagonists, therefore, more or less exists in their own little story independent of the others and has to develop more or less on his own. And since they only rarely interact it creates a disjointed and extremely shallow effect.

This structure is designed simply to shove as many familiar names in as possible, without necessarily providing them an actual role in the story. If Balrog, E. Honda, T. Hawk, Dee Jay, and/or Cammy were cut, nothing whatsoever would change, story-wise. The same could be said of Blanka (though he at least personalizes Guille’s motivation somewhat), Dhalsim, and Zangief.

One partial solution might have been to keep Chun-Li’s game background as an interpol agent rather than a journalist and have her partnered with Guille, allowing them to build off of each other and form a genuine relationship. That would have left no clear role for Cammy, Honda, T. Hawk, or Balrog, but, again, they don’t really have a role in the film to begin with except giving the protagonists someone to talk to, which would have been better served by having one of the other protagonists filling that role.

Another issue is how the characters are deployed in each film. In Mortal Kombat, we have eleven characters, but they’re not all present throughout the story. They are all established by about the half-hour mark, but then Goro and Reptile remain off-screen ‘in reserve’ for most of the second act while Kano, Scorpion, and Sub-Zero are eliminated one-by-one. Only once they’ve been removed from the story does Goro take an active role. Reptile, meanwhile, is established in two scenes: one where Shang gives him his assignment and one where he performs it by ambushing Liu to prevent him from making contact with Kitana. The point made (that the heroes can’t just go up to her and ask for help or vice-versa), he disappears from the film until it’s time for his fight scene. This also serves to keep Kitana largely ‘in reserve’ until close to the end, after Raiden has dropped out.

This makes sense given the nature of the story and characters: it’s a tournament, so characters will be eliminated and other characters will be waiting until they’re ‘called up.’ This keeps the active cast to a manageable level, even when there are actually a fairly large number of characters in the film, because at any given time we only have about five or six whose actions we have to keep track of.

On the other hand, in Street Fighter, every character is active and ‘on the board’ at all times in the story, meaning that the audience has to keep track of what every one of the fifteen characters is doing. They are all established as quickly as possible and then by and large just sit around contributing nothing for the rest of the screen time until it’s time for one of them to punch out a random goon, like freeloaders camped out on the couch. The result is an inescapable impression of empty bloat.

Again, a solution might have been to simply have some of the characters come and go throughout the film: have them fill temporary roles and then drop out of the story once the role is completed to make way for another character. So, you could have T. Hawk play a role in the beginning, get killed off or invalided out and replace him with Balrog (or something).

The Plots:

Mortal Kombat kept to a very simple, straightforward plot based on a venerable movie template that fit closely with what story the game had. In this case, it’s Enter the Dragon with fantasy elements: there’s a martial arts tournament that will decide whether an evil emperor from a dimension of magic will be allowed to invade the Earth. The premise is goofy, but imaginative and makes a certain intuitive sense (evoking the idea of trial by combat). Each character has a clear, simple reason for being there and taking part in the plot. Most importantly, it’s easy to grasp and to follow and it provides for a lot of martial arts duels.

Street Fighter took on a much more convoluted plot featuring a civil war against a power-mad dictator in a fictional country that superficially resembles Vietnam. There’s a hostage plot that doesn’t really affect anything except to provide a ticking clock (except that all the characters are already motivated to go after Bison, so…what was the point?), a plotline of Bison wanting to create an army of super-soldiers, which sort-of personalizes the battle for Guille, but otherwise only exists to create Blanka (and again unnecessary since Guille’s already motivated to go after Bison), a plot of Ryu and Ken going undercover with a local crime lord to try to find Bison’s hideout, and a plot of Chun-Li trying to get revenge on Bison for her father’s death. Of these the only ones that really tie together are the Guille’s and Ryu and Ken’s (since he’s using them to get to Bison), and none of them have much of a payoff. Chun-Li’s quest for revenge is simply forgotten about after she ambushes him and gets re-captured. The hostage plot again, doesn’t actually affect anything one way or another, and Blanka doesn’t do anything except electrocute one guard and look sad before apparently dying (why not have him join the fight against Bison to save Guille from the villain’s sudden-onset superpowers?).

At any point it isn’t really clear just what Bison’s resources and capabilities are: we’re told he has high-tech weapons that he uses to make up for his comparatively few troops, but we never see them. He has a bunch of faceless henchmen, but then so does Sagat. It isn’t clear why Guille needs Ryu and Ken at all, and the plot as a whole has very little weight to it.

The Characters:

Mortal Kombat had eleven characters to adapt: the seven playable characters of the first game, the two boss characters, one hidden character, and one character from the sequel. They solved this by choosing to focus on the three most heroic, relatable characters as their three protagonists, casting another character in a mentor role (which simultaneously serves to temper what should be his overwhelming power), and working the remaining three in as supporting antagonists to allow for the kind of duels one would see in the game. The two boss characters of course play the main antagonist roles, while the remaining two – Kitanna and Reptile – are worked together as a potential ally to the heroes and the monster assigned to guard her, respectively. You also have one more character – Jax – in a cameo role, and another – Shao Khan – as an unseen presence and then as the ‘stinger’ to end the film. This meant that some of the characters – especially Scorpion and Sub-Zero – got far reduced roles, but it gave more time to focus on the three leads and the plot with the villain.

Street Fighter had fifteen characters to adapt, since the studio insisted on including the enitrety of the game’s large cast. Trouble was that, as noted, the film’s framework didn’t intuitively allow for that many characters, so they were squeezed in to whatever roles there were or could be made for them. You have of course Guille as the hero, Bison as the villain, and Chun-Li as the heroine. So far so good. Though this leaves the two protagonists of the game, Ryu and Ken, without a place, so they become supporting characters and comic relief. Sagat as a secondary villain allied with Bison makes sense, as does having Vega as his subordinate. Likewise Zangief as Bison’s enforcer and Cammy as Guille’s second in command. But then we start running off the rails: we need an excuse for Blanka. He’ll be an abortive super-soldier experiment. That means we need a scientist, so Dhalsim becomes Dr. Dhalsim. Chun-Li’s a reporter now, so she can have a film crew. Shove E. Honda and Balrog in as her sidekicks (no, we don’t care that Balrog was a villain in the game). T. Hawk can be another soldier under Guile. And Bison needs a computer guy, so make that Dee Jay because Theo worked in Die Hard.

See, in the latter they’re pretty much just dropping names into whatever roles they have available or that they can force into the story, like they’re casting a play and need everyone to participate, while in the former, the characters all fit the story and serve it.

Ironically enough, though it follows the game much more closely, Mortal Kombat is much less dependent upon it. People can (and do) enjoy it without knowing anything about the game (I know this for a fact since I first saw it with almost no prior knowledge of the game, on the recommendation of a critic who likewise knew nothing about the source material). Street Fighter is almost wholly distinct from the game in every way, but a good chunk of its cast only exists because they were in the game. Someone who had never heard of the game would watch that movie and find himself wondering why half the cast even exists and why it makes such a point of letting us know who they are (not to mention wondering why it’s called ‘Street Fighter’).

This makes sense when you think about it: these characters were originally designed for a certain context. The closer you can stick to that context, the more sense they will make, while the further away you get, the more you have to struggle to justify them.

The Villains:

Raul Julia’s M. Bison is an over-the-top caricature of a mad dictator; truck-loads of fun to watch, but utterly unconvincing as a threat. He lets Guille bait him, gets outwitted or put on the back-foot more than once, and even his own allies and subordinates seem to regard him as little more than a lunatic most of the time. Julia was no martial artist, requiring a lot of strategic camera and editing tricks to allow him to fight Jean-Claude Van Damme, and even then he’s on the ropes for most of the fight, and that’s after he gets thoroughly trounced by the heroine half way through the film.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa’s Shang Tsung is played on a more restrained, if still hammy note, conveying an air of sophistication and chess-master-like control of the situation. He rarely loses his cool, covers almost every base he can, and is convincingly dangerous throughout. He’s able to get away with taunting a god and successfully outwits and manipulates the heroes on more than one occasion. His underlings, even the monstrous Goro, treat him with fearful respect. Tagawa is fairly big and well-muscled, and he’s skilled enough to go toe-to-toe with Robin Shou in the climax with some very fast and fluid martial arts. Before that it’s made very clear that none of the others have a chance against him, and he in fact tries to take advantage of this by challenging first Sonya and then Johnny to the final bout.

Their introductions provide an illustrative point of contrast. Both villains are introduced killing minor characters: Bison takes out two random soldiers in a stiff, blatantly staged manner, snapping their necks in two moves (though accompanied by the great line, “You came across the world to fight me, soldier. Now is your chance!”). He then sees Guille on a news broadcast giving him an off-color hand gesture and is infuriated into challenging him directly.

Shang has a nightmare fight with Liu Kang’s brother, delivering smooth blocks and bone-breaking blows to illustrate his legitimate skill and power (as well as being more emotionally effective – seeing a young man being beaten to death while calling for his brother, instead of two randos dying with little fanfare – despite the hammy acting). He then tells Liu “Your brother’s soul is mine! You will be next!” before transforming into a skull and ending the dream.

The Bison scene is fine in concept as a way to establish his ruthlessness and physical prowess as well as to set up the conflict between the hero and villain. Though it falls apart in the execution and again, I don’t like that he lets himself be rattled so easily. And the interaction between Bison and Guille is both unnecessary (Guille’s whole mission is to fight Bison and so he is already motivated to take him down) and ridiculous (that Bison can somehow talk to him through a television camera).

The Shang scene is cheesy, but effective, again establishing the villain as a dangerous and brutal opponent, while also setting the hero’s motivation, as well as suggesting right at the beginning of the film that Liu doesn’t really believe he can defeat Shang, as shown by Shang turning into a skull right after promising to take his soul. So, right there we have “the hero must fight the villain, but he doubts he can triumph.”

Even apart from the execution (for all his acting talent, there was no way Raul Julia would be as convincingly dangerous a fighter as Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa), the Street Fighter scene makes Guille and Bison equals at best: Guille can rile Bison, and Bison can taunt him right back (I really wanted to find something that rhymed with ‘Bison’ there). Guille clearly isn’t the least bit intimidated by Bison, which means there’s no tension regarding the outcome of their battle. The Mortal Kombat scene portrays Shang Tsung as literally Liu Kang’s worst nightmare, to the point that he sees him as his own death incarnate.

The former tries to establish the credentials of both the hero and the villain at the same time. The problem with this is that it means the villain can’t be allowed to overshadow the hero, so we aren’t really worried about whether the hero can prevail. The latter focuses entirely on establishing the villain as a dangerous threat and setting up the hero’s motivation, trusting that a). they have the whole rest of the film to establish Liu’s badass credentials and b). the audience will naturally assume he’s a badass once they see him (writing short-hand again: “you know you’re watching a martial arts film. Here’s a handsome, muscular young Asian guy. You can do the math”).

The Action:

Both films are based on fighting games, but as noted, Street Fighter has very little fighting in it: the action is mostly fairly generic, underwhelming gun fights, explosions, and standard war / action movie fare. What fights it does have are mostly filmed in quick close-ups (partially to disguise the lack of training in key cast members – most notably Raul Julia – and partly because the film’s chaotic schedule meant that many of them had to be improvised or choreographed on the fly).

Mortal Kombat has quite a few showpiece fight scenes, including a sequence of four or five in a row mid-way through the film. The fights are mostly filmed in fairly lengthy long-shots interspersed with close-ups, allowing us to clearly see the actors performing extended sets of fast and fluid martial arts. Most of the cast are trained martial artists of one description or another, and it’s clear the fights were a high priority for the filmmakers (the release date was actually pushed back to allow new fight scenes to be filmed when test audiences didn’t think there was enough of it).

(The one exception, as noted, is Bridgette Wilson as Sonya, whose few fight scenes are filmed more in quick individual cuts, where they filmed her doing one or two moves at a time and edited them together. By contrast, almost every fight in Street Fighter, including every fight involving the main villain, is done this way. What is a sparingly-used expedient in one film is the norm in the other).

The result is that Street Fighter’s action is mostly forgettable boilerplate stuff when it isn’t laughable (e.g. trying to pass off the ravaged Raul Julia as a master fighter on par with Van Damme). There are a small handful of decent fights, but all pretty short and not filmed particularly well. Mortal Kombat boasts some really solid and excellently filmed martial arts, as well as having much more of a distinct ‘style’ to its action scenes.

(As a point of contrast: Guile and co spend as much time running around with guns as they do engaging in martial arts. Sonya’s the only one who uses a firearm in her film, and her gun gets almost contemptuously destroyed as soon as the main plot gets going, leaving bare hands and simple weapons the only recourse for the rest of the movie).

The Behind-The-Scenes:

There are also some interesting points of similarity and contrast in how their respective studios and filmmakers approached the movies, and how the shoots went. A few of which include:

  • Both films had fledgling directors, though Stephen de Souza had worked in the industry and built up a stronger track record than Paul Anderson at that point. De Souza had written some of the biggest action hits of the past decade (this is one of the guys who wrote Die Hard, for goodness sakes!). Anderson had only made a low-budget crime film.

De Souza explicitly had no interest in making a martial arts or tournament film, instead opting to base his script off of a storyline he had seen being considered at Capcom for future entries, involving M. Bison as a dictator trying to take over the world. He figured he could re-cast the game’s colorful lineup of characters into an original action-sci-fi film, rather than a straightforward adaptation of the game.

De Souza wanted only seven characters, and initially Capcom agreed (persuaded by his argument that audiences can only really follow seven characters at a time). But then, as pre-production went on, Capcom kept insisting he add more characters to the cast. Then more. Then more. Until by the end he had exactly the problem he had warned them about.

Mortal Kombat had at its helm not just Paul Anderson, but more importantly producer Lawrence Kasanoff. Kasanoff, upon discovering the Mortal Kombat arcade game, immediately saw the potential in the premise. The blend of martial arts and weird fantasy, he thought, was potentially a billion dollar franchise, extending to movies, books, TV, anything you cared to name. Kasanoff fought hard to get the film made and enthusiastically promoted it all the way, keeping in close touch with Ed Boon, the game’s co-creator (and voice of Scorpion in the movie) to make sure they were matching the spirit of the game.

In short, the people behind Mortal Kombat really believed in the potential of the property and meant to translate it to the screen. The people behind Street Fighter saw it more as a jumping-off point for an idea they thought would be more interesting.

  • Ironically, Universal and Capcom loved Street Fighter and were very enthusiastic about it, while New Line frankly hated Mortal Kombat and had very little faith in it (Kasanoff tells a story of the studio head yelling at him for an hour about how much he hated the script before concluding “go ahead and make it”). This actually might have helped things, as Kombat didn’t have the problem of the studio trying to force changes upon the production (other than the PG-13 rating) or demanding an early release date. Street Fighter was forced into a rushed production to be in theaters by Christmas in order to push the merchandise that had been enthusiastically churned out for it, no doubt exasperating the films myriad other problems. Studio enthusiasm isn’t always a positive.
  • Much of Street Fighter’s $35 million budget went to hiring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julie (Van Damme alone cost $8 million: over a fifth of the film’s entire budget!). Van Damme, then at the height of his stardom, addicted to cocaine, and coming off of a very bitter divorce, was by all accounts a nightmare to work with, refusing to rehearse, showing up late to the set (if he showed up at all), and being an absolute diva when he did. This on top of demanding an expensive private hotel room for his own use (Julia on the other hand was a consummate professional respected by everyone on the set and often accompanied by his children).

Mortal Kombat had a budget of $20 million, part of which went to hiring veteran star Christopher Lambert. Money was so tight that they originally thought that they’d only be able to use him for a few days of shooting on an LA soundstage and resort to long-distance body doubles for the Thailand shoot. Lambert, however, liked the role and wanted the film to succeed, so he volunteered to pay his own expenses to come down to Thailand and film more scenes. There he helped keep the production going smoothly with his laid-back, helpful, professional attitude, setting the tone for everyone else (he also proved himself an absolute mensch by buying a wrap party for the cast and crew out of his own pocket when filming concluded with nothing left in the budget).

  • As noted, Moral Kombat cost $15 million less than Street Fighter. Yet they clearly spent the money much more wisely, focusing on the elaborate sets and any necessary special effects (e.g. Goro) over hiring big name actors. The cast was mostly relative unknowns, with veterans Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa filling in the heavy lifting. Some characters were simply played by stuntmen since they wouldn’t have any lines anyway.

Street Fighter spent a good chunk of its budget on its somewhat-bizarrely strong cast: in addition to Van Damme and Julia, we have veteran dramatic actors like Wes Studi, Roshan Seth, and Grand L. Bush, not to mention Australian pop sensation Kylie Minogue (who, incidentally, was very well liked by the rest of the cast for her sweet, professional behavior on set and supportive attitude off it). Since the film also included a lot of extras, numerous locations, and a fair number of special effects and explosions, the remaining budget ended up being noticeably stretched thin, with the result that the film looks considerably cheaper than Mortal Kombat, despite costing almost twice as much.

The short version of all this, it seems to me, is that Mortal Kombat is a much more focused film: the filmmakers knew what they were aiming to achieve, knew what the particular appeal of the film would be, knew the effect they were trying to create. They concentrated all their effort on the things that would contribute to that effect and tailored the story and characters to the film they meant to make.

Street Fighter seems to have been cobbled together from multiple conflicting visions, not only different ideas of what would happen in the film, but even what kind of film they were making. The most basic elements – the fighting and characters – are mostly done half-heartedly in favor of large dollops of shallow plotlines and out-of-place action scenes. Half the crew seems under the impression they’re making a comedy (e.g. the goofy reactions to the impending truck bomb), the other half thinks they’re making a serious action movie (e.g. Guille contemplating the home videos of his friend, Blanka).

Kombat succeeded on a combination of faith in the material, solid writing, a wisely-spent budget, a cooperative cast, and a clear sense of priority. Fighter failed on a blend of doubt in the material, weak, haphazard writing, a poorly spent budget, a chaotic shoot on a hard deadline, and a general failure to prioritize.

Some of these things are just a matter of bad luck (it would have been hard to predict Van Damme’s absurd diva behavior for instance), but there are a lot of things here for those who are writers to try to keep in mind: understand what you are trying to achieve and what i necessary to create that effect (and what isn’t: do you really need a first-class dramatic actor as the generic scientist in an action movie based on a fighting game?). Consider the structure of the story and character interactions and whether it uses them efficiently. Keep an eye on what each scene is doing and what it says about each character (e.g. is a character who is supposed to be intimidating being undermined?). Ask what role each character plays and whether the story really needs them, or needs them to be present at the moment. Ask how many characters the audience has to keep track of at each given moment and whether there is a way to shuffle them around to keep the active cast down to a manageable level.

And above all else: have faith in the material you’re working with and commit to it.

Friday (Saturday) Flotsam: Agatha Christie

1. Missed yesterday, obviously. I’m currently on a kind of personal mini-retreat at my sister’s, which meant being on the road or otherwise occupied for the past few days.

2. On the way up I listened to the Miss Marple novel They Do it With Mirrors. It isn’t one of Dame Agatha Christie’s best (I successfully guessed the solution the first time I read it), but like most of her work is hugely entertaining anyway.

Agatha Christie’s storytelling really does not get enough appreciation, I think; her intricate detective plots are brilliant, of course, but she also excels at mixing up a lot of different subplots in her work to try to keep you guessing. Usually, I find, there’s the actual plot (the murder), at least one major subplot (typically a romance: Dame Christie almost always worked romantic subplots into her books) that serves as a key smokescreen, plus two or three minor ones.

So, an Agatha Christie novel is set up as more or less a series of different, semi-connected plot lines all laid one on top of the other. Most have nothing to do with the murder, but they seem like they might. This also (I suspect) gave her the chance to explore other kinds of stories that she wanted to write anyway, but which were outside of the detective form.

(Upon reflection, I suppose all stories could be thought of like that, though in the case of a mystery novel, the subplots don’t have to contribute to the main plot at all. Their simply being there to muddy the waters is an adequate reason for their existence).

3. Another thing about Dame Christie’s work: she mastered the trick of making the most logical person guilty without making the solution obvious.

In most good murder mysteries, there are at least three suspects: the one everyone in the book thinks is obviously guilty, the one the audience is supposed to think is guilty, and the one who is actually guilty.

Say you have a man shot in his study. Is the killer A). his unscrupulous butler who was embezzling from him and about to get caught? B). the secretary in love with the man’s much-younger wife and whose story doesn’t quite hold together? or C). his very respectable lawyer who has a cast iron alibi and no obvious motive?

Of course it’s C (the lawyer actually had been embezzling from him for years and was about to be ruined). Dame Christie’s particular genius, however, was to make it turn out to be A after all, but in such a way that you would think he had already been cleared of suspicion. She didn’t do this all the time, but often enough. It keeps you on your toes.

4. The thing is, Dame Christie’s characterization and so forth isn’t usually brilliant: the characters are generally fairly clear ‘types’ with a few tweaks added on, but they’re well-realized and appealing types, which is really the important thing. The point of the story is to entertain, and as far as that’s concerned familiarity, or at least being able to get a picture of the character quickly is more important than depth. Not that you shouldn’t have both if you can, but in a detective story you usually don’t have the time for a whole lot of depth.

Besides which, the driving question of a detective story is ‘who did it’? And what gives the question its sting is the fear that someone you like is going to turn out to be the killer. So we need to set the characters quickly and clearly, in fairly broad strokes (the gruff military man, the pretty young woman, the middle-aged widow, etc.) so that the reader knows what’s at stake and can begin to try to figure out which one he thinks did the deed.

But then again, I’m generally of the opinion that vividness – that the characters stand out or stick in the reader’s mind – is more important than depth – that the characters show many different sides or layers and have a complex psychology. But that’s a topic for another time.

Friday Flotsam – Mostly on Superman

1. Been adjusting lately to various life developments (yeah, I’m gonna go with that), which means I haven’t quite worked out how to fit blogging into the picture. I intend to blog more regularly going forward, but so far I haven’t worked out how.

2. Working on a post summarizing how I think Zack Synder butchered Superman and Batman. There’s a lot there, but I’m realizing that, if I want to be entirely fair, I should probably revisit the DCEU. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen any of the Snyder films (mostly because I hated them), and in that time I’ve become a much more fervent and informed Superman fan. Watching clips now I keep thinking “that’s wrong. That’s stupid. Man, they really didn’t care there, did they?” So at some point in the future I may do a DCEU rundown as a companion to my Marvel rundown (though, as the DCEU has no real ending nor any plans for one, I’ll probably cut myself off at some point. Maybe with the *shudder* Snyder cut…).

3. Speaking of which, I also need to revisit the Christopher Reeves films. I saw them long, long ago and remember not really liking them that much, despite Mr. Reeves’ definitive performance. Mostly it was because I didn’t at all like some of the story choices (e.g. the turning back time in the first film, the de-powering subplot in the second, etc.). But perhaps they’ll play better now.

4. Honestly, one of my favorite iterations so far is Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman from the mid nineties. Despite the lackluster special effects, reduced Superman powerlevel, and the oft-cheesy scripts I think Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher are among the best incarnations of Clark and Lois, especially Mr. Cain, who makes Clark perfectly the ‘normal, decent guy’ he’s supposed to be. Like, I love the detail that his fridge is full of junk food since, while he doesn’t need to eat, he likes it and so goes for whatever tastes the best because why not? That’s the kind of development onto Superman’s character that I like: thinking through the logical implications of his powers and asking how a guy like Clark would respond. Or the way he regularly calls home to his parents to discuss how his life is going. And I like the Kents’ charmingly casual approach to his powers (when Clark’s a little dubious about the cape his mother insists “It’ll look great when you’re flying”). Or, one of my favorite touches, Clark gets his job at the Planet by interviewing an old actress as she says goodbye to a theater being torn down. That’s the kind of guy he needs to be; sympathetic, open, and showing interest in and value for everyone he meets.

Miss Hatcher’s Lois is on point as well, with that delightful blend of sarcasm, self-assurance, and vulnerability that makes the character. She and Mr. Cain have fantastic chemistry and really come across as honest-to-goodness friends in spite of their chop-busting antics.

5. See, here’s what I think most people get wrong: when making a Superman adaptation, the most important thing is to get Clark Kent right. Because if you do Clark right, Superman will follow. But if you focus on Superman, you’re liable to miss the whole point. You see, Clark Kent is the real character. Even if you have Superman in costume most of the time, you have to remember that Clark is the true identity. Fundamentally, whatever crazy stuff you’re having him do, carrying a satellite into orbit or fighting psychic vigilantes on the Moon, you have to keep in mind that it’s the kid from Kansas who is doing all this (as Lois says in Superman vs. the Elite: “You can take the kid out of the cornfield…”).

4. I think another problem filmmakers run into when adapting Superman (and similar properties) is simply that they overthink things. See, I suspect that a lot of filmmakers will approach a major cultural touchstone like that and think “Since this is such a big, important property, there must be some real depth to it. It must be full of hidden meaning and subtle complexities, and if I’m going to really do this right, I have to be just as deep and complex. I have to really make this an event!”

What they’re missing is that it is precisely the simplicity of the story, the straightforward, unapologetic nature of it that gives it it’s power. The fundamental Superman story is “man has the power to save the day in every circumstance, but never takes the credit for it so the woman he loves has no idea what he does.” You can sum it up in a sentence (I just did), but there are almost an infinitude of things you can do with it.

Now, you can do things with Superman beyond that simple formula, but the point is that the Superman idea is a pretty straightforward one. The more you try to make it ‘deep’ and complex, the more you add to it, the more specificity you give it, the more likely you’re going to lose the thing that made it interesting in the first place.

To put it more simply, I remember someone saying that if you want to make a good Superman movie, just take the airplane sequence from Superman Returns and do that for ninety minutes. Which is pretty accurate.

Greatness in storytelling is not a matter of complexity, ambiguity, believability, relatability, or anything of the kind. It is a matter of a unique idea perfectly realized.

Repost: Heroes, Dark Heroes, and Antiheroes

Found this excellent post through a friend’s blog, and I highly recommend it for an insightful summary of the progress of the past hundred years or so in storytelling.

The key point, it seems to me, is this:

There’s a reason humans innately love morally upright characters, and it’s because storytelling was originally a vehicle for teaching codes of behavior and life lessons. We seek role models to tell us how to live. Storytelling now is split between that original purpose and validating attachment wounds. Validating attachment wounds may make people feel good in the moment but is specific to each generation as far as what they’ll accept and reject, while objective moral heroes stand the test of time, even across thousands of years.

And Zoomers, the ones who are surviving and thriving, seem poised to bring back everything traditional. Morality is in vogue once more, as are responsibility, family, love, and honor.

But by all means, read the whole thing.

Some Thoughts on ‘Silver Spoon’

            I have recently begun to seriously explore the wonderful world of anime and manga. And one of my favorites so far has been Silver Spoon, which I am currently in the process of reading after having finished the anime (which, unfortunately, only covers about the first half to two-thirds of the manga).

The premise is that Hachiken Yugo is a first year high schooler in Hokkaido. Despite working himself half to death, he didn’t do very well on his final exams for middle school, much to the disappointment of his terrifying father. Seeking to get away from home, he chooses the one high school in the region that has a dormitory: Yezu Agricultural School. He figures this will be a perfect fit; he’ll be the only city boy among a bunch of farmers, and the school curriculums in math, science, and so on are tiny, while agricultural textbooks are just a lot of memorization. So, he’ll get away from his unbearable home life and ensure he gets top-grades at the same time!

The one thing he forgot to consider is that this is an agricultural school, and most of the work is practical. Meaning he suddenly finds himself having to get up at five AM to do farm chores on top of studying, while he also discovers that farm life is much, much more complicated and demanding than he ever expected.

Oh, and he discovers that one of his classmates, Mikage Aki, is really, really cute.

 

See?

The result of all that is a truly charming, hilarious, and heartwarming (and heartbreaking) tale of a boy growing to maturity in a completely alien environment. It reminds me in some ways of All Creatures Great and Small, the British show about the life and times of a young vet in Yorkshire, only Yugo starts out as a complete newcomer to farm life, even to the point of being surprised at how big the cows are dawhen he first arrives. We, the audience, get to experience all that growth and learning and the shattering of preconceptions along with him (the artist, Hiromu “Fullmetal Alchemist” Arakawa,  grew up on a dairy farm in Hokkaido, so the details of farm life have the ring of authenticity to them). Over the course of the story, he grows attached to one of the pigs (named ‘Pork Bowl’) and then has to deal with sending it to be slaughtered, he joins the equestrian club (mostly because Aki is in it) and learns how to deal with horses, spends the summer working on a dairy farm, makes home-made pizza (since he’s the only one at school who lives within delivery distance, he’s the only one who knows what it’s supposed to taste like), and organizes the school festival. During the course of all this, he not only learns about farm work, but becomes one of the most popular boys in school and something of a natural leader for his outsider perspective and willingness to do just about anything for anyone.

At the same time, though, he struggles with massive confidence issues (courtesy of his perfectionist father) and with trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life. He soon discovers that he’s quite literally the only person in his class who doesn’t have a plan for his life, and though most of his classmates’ plans involve simply taking over their family farms, he nevertheless is jealous of their apparent security. Though this, he eventually discovers, is much more uncertain than it first appears.

One of the first things that struck me about this series was how, well, nice everyone was. This is the first school story I can recall where there are no ‘bully’ characters: everyone in Yugo’s class is decent to him in their own way. It takes almost eighty chapters before one of them develops any kind of rivalry with him (and it doesn’t really hurt their friendship), and even longer for anything like a school bully to appear (from a rival school at a tournament, and he gets hilariously sent packing almost the moment he appears). Yugo’s father is the only really antagonistic character present, and he has very little screen time, though…well, more on him later.

But though they’re all decent people, there’s plenty of character and conflict to be had among them, and they all have flaws, but the flaws are presented as just a matter of being human. For instance, there’s the domineering, egg-shaped Tamako, who is extremely blunt and at one point announces to her parents that she loves money more than anything and is planning a takeover of their farm. In any western story, this would mark her as a villain; here it’s played entirely for laughs as just part of her eccentric charm (“We must crush her before she grows too powerful!” “You are welcome to try!”). Or there’s Tokiwa, the heir to the poultry farm, who is both the worst student in class (he’s thrilled when he gets a 10 out of 100 score on his math test because “I never got double-digits before!”) and has an unfortunate tendency to spread rumors based on very little information, resulting in Yugo being hauled before the dean twice on rumors of illicit sexual relations with his classmates (“I was talking about a pig!” “…You got a pig pregnant?”). Again, this is played entirely for comedy, as there was no malice in Tokiwa’s actions and the misunderstanding is cleared up as soon as Yugo is able to explain himself.

As the latter indicates, Silver Spoon is as, well, frank as I find a lot of Japanese fiction to be. It isn’t really crude, but they don’t shy away from either the reality of farm life (poops and live births abound, and we visit a slaughterhouse in one chapter) or of adolescence. There’s a bit where Yugo is told about how you can tell the age of a cow because the younger ones have smaller udders while he absentmindedly eyes Aki. Another bit has her asking him to help her find a bra: “it’s big and black…” Turns out it’s a cow bra (to prevent her from treading on her udder) But the interesting thing is that, to me at least, this sort of thing feels ‘cleaner’ than the sexual content found in most western stories, maybe because here they mostly play it for a joke, as an honest depiction of what teenagers are like, while in western fiction there’s often a degree of either self-importance (“look how daring I am!”) or crudity about it that makes it feel, well, more adolescent. I had a similar reaction to the sexual humor in Naruto: when Naruto is transported at the idea of spying on the girl’s side of the bath and then has nightmares of what Sakura would do to him if he did, it feels like the joke is about how teenagers think about sex, rather than being itself an excuse to talk about sex. It’s an interesting tonal phenomenon that I’d like to explore further (ugh, there’s no way to make that sentence proof against misunderstanding, is there?).

Another thing that has struck me about a lot of anime that I’ve seen; the characters often feel much more distinct and human than a lot of their western counterparts. They’re less likely to be built to a ‘type’ (the Jock, the Nerd, the Bully, etc.) than to simply be constructed as individuals. Like Aki’s childhood friend, Ichiro, who plays baseball and often rubs Yugo wrong. He’s not a ‘jock,’ he’s a young man with very specific goals from a specific situation, and how that situation and those goals play out forms a crucial subplot.

Likewise, the story follows its own beats, and part of that is that things don’t work out according to a formula. The above mentioned subplot involves a game of baseball with the future of several beloved characters riding on it coming down to one final play…which they don’t make, leaving them to have to face up to failure and heartbreak and try to figure out where to go from there. Pork Bowl is indeed turned into pork despite Yugo’s attachment to him, because that’s what pigs are raised for. Bad things happen and you can’t always do anything about them is practically a theme of the story, though also that you might be able to do more about it than you think you can.

All this leads to one of the big moments of the series, where Yugo proves himself a hero, not by saving the day or averting disaster, but simply by insisting that he will always being there for someone, whatever happens and however much it hurts.

On a practical level, the fact that the story is willing to break the audience’s heart, to show things not working out even when they had to work out means that we’re hooked with every subsequent challenge and crisis, because we know there’s no guarantee that it will have a happy ending. Yugo’s team might lose the equestrian tournament. Yugo might not get the loan to start his business. Aki might not pass her college entrance exam. Nothing is guaranteed, however badly you want it, which means you just how to read on and to find out what happens. Much like life.

He ends up eating that pig

By the way, the romance here is fantastic. Like everything else, it feels very honest and very sweet, as Yugo and Aki develop an easy-going, familiar attachment while he struggles with a massive crush on her that is complicated by his confidence issues. She soon realizes that she likes him as well, but is a little clueless about romance and is dubious that someone like him – a comparatively well off, educated, and intelligent city boy – would seriously be interested in a book-dumb girl from a debt-ridden family farm. This leads to a lot of delightful moments, where he way overthinks things and she misses the point entirely (such as when her roommates have to explicitly spell out the fact that him asking her to go somewhere, just the two of them, was him asking her on a date. This after her acceptance resulted in his feelings being shown in one of the most over-the-top and hilarious splash-pages you will ever see). But also the way he steps up and tries to look out for her, to encourage her, to be there for her lets us appreciate that they do really make a wonderful couple (among other things, he teasingly tries to get her to not worry about the thick rural accent she self-consciously tries to hide).

The most pressing obstacle is her hilariously overprotective father, who scares Yugo almost as much as his own father (at one point he imagines them having a kaiju battle). The very first time they meet, he takes one look at Yugo and shouts, “I DO NOT APPROVE!” (this long before Yugo has even worked up the nerve to ask Aki out). Yet, he’s shown to be otherwise a very good, if grim, man, generous with his stock and listening honestly to his daughter when she tries to talk to him about her life.

Yugo’s own father is somewhat of a different matter; a brutally demanding, imposing figure with extreme perfectionist tendencies, who expects his sons to excel and is not shy about expressing his anger (in a cold, dismissive fashion) when they don’t. We get a sense of the kind of life Yugo had when he’s staying with Aki’s family over the summer and accidentally gets lost in the bear infested woods. When he finally calls them from another farm, his only thought is that they’ll be furious with him for missing out on work; the idea that they were more worried about his safety never entered his head. At one point Yugo compares his father’s attitude to a farmer’s toward livestock; deliver results, or you are worthless. More amusingly, when Yugo’s father visits the school, the students immediately assume he’s a Yakuza and begin using his picture as a warding charm.

Yet, even Yugo’s father isn’t simply a caricature. He’s a very unpleasant figure, but he shows flashes of humanity, as when, upon receiving Yugo’s business proposal in the mail, he immediately sits down to go over it rather than simply rejecting it out of hand (he does reject it, but he gives it his full attention first). Or when he tries to avoid seeing his son after watching him compete in an equestrian tournament, knowing that he would only ruin the moment for him. Likewise his mother, though rather weak, is shown to be honestly concerned for her son and hurt that he never calls or writes them while at school: something Yugo’s classmates criticize him for.

In summary, the characters are played as human, with all that implies. They’re sometimes over-the-top and eccentric, but they have real emotions and reactions.

Another favorite character is the school principal; a tiny, cartoonish little man who seems to appear all over school, and yet who nevertheless proves a font of real wisdom and sage advice, as well as an effective teacher. His speech to the graduating first years, regarding the titular silver spoon, is a beautiful piece of work, dealing with the meaning of both agriculture and learning. As a matter of fact, there’s a lot of genuine wisdom to be had throughout; about looking reality in the face, but not giving up on your dreams, about accepting that there are things you will never perfectly understand, but you should always try to understand, about hardship and maturity and dedication. It’s also a fascinating look into where our food comes from, and the hard, grinding, often heartbreaking work that goes into it (the insight into cheese-making is just one example). Characters discuss questions of efficiency versus animal welfare, but they don’t come up with pat answers; only saying, “these are the things we have to work with” and inviting both each other and the audience to decide for themselves. Actually, that’s another bit of wisdom it offers; don’t be afraid not to have answers, as long as you’re still trying to understand.

This sort of mature thinking, rich characterization, honesty, and intelligent plotting, blended with humor and charm, is something to study and treasure. It’s just a wonderful piece of work, and I’m not even done with it (actually, I don’t know if the manga is finished). This is the kind of writing that I’d like to aspire to, and I highly recommend it.

The Nuances of How Superpowered Characters Are Received at Home

The irreplaceable Caroline Furlong has another insightful essay in her series on writing superpowered characters; this one is on how they should be viewed in their own world. In it, she hits several points of nuance that the vast majority of modern writers (especially those working in Hollywood or in the comics industry) seem incapable of comprehending: such as that maybe, just maybe, ordinary people have reasons apart from unthinking prejudice and bigotry for fearing a man who can destroy a city single-handedly:

The main reason they must not do this is simple: power of any kind will, if used for selfish motives, corrupt the wielder and lead him/her to the Dark Side. The mild illustration of a teenage couple breaking up due to the machinations of jealous peers should make this clear. Let us say that the girl in this relationship hears a false rumor about her boyfriend making fun of her with his friends, while he is lied to and told that she is cheating on him with another boy. In many situations like this, after breaking up, the two do all sorts of petty things to avenge themselves on one another for the “betrayal” they experienced.

Even without the addition of extraordinary powers, we can see that the odds of this scenario having a happy finale are not good. But take a step back and ask yourself this, future writers: “What happens if the girl discovers she is a pyrokinetc (a fire manipulator and/or generator)? What happens if the boy realizes he can move things with his mind, hear the thoughts of others, and/or compel them to do something? What does their desire to gain vengeance on one another for these perceived betrayals look like then?”

The probable answers to these inquiries are unpleasant, to say the least. If the girl has pyrokinetic powers, she might decide to use her gift to cause bodily or financial harm to her ex-boyfriend. If the boy is telepathic and telekinetic, then he could force his ex-girlfriend to walk off a bridge downtown as “punishment” for her infidelity. These are horrific uses for paranormal gifts, but they illustrate the temptations that these one or two enhanced characters will face in such a situation.

She then goes on to explore ways different stories have explored that mistrust and uncertainty in clever and creative ways. Definitely read the whole thing! 

For my own part, I would make it a rule to never play the ‘unthinking bigotry’ card, much less the ‘they fear what they don’t understand’ one. For one thing, it doesn’t ring true to me (even the most absurd bigotries have some rational basis), and for another, I think it is a very dangerous mindset to encourage; if people adopt it, it leads them to shut their ears to what others actually have to say and to slap the ‘bigot’ label on anyone who says anything they don’t like. Thus, ironically, this mode of attacking prejudice only encourages it. Far better to give the justification a fair hearing and show why and how it is wrong, or at least how it isn’t the whole story, then to dumb things down to pure, unthinking resentment. Besides, exploring ideas and settling true from false makes for a much better story than just “these people are good and innocent; these are evil and ignorant, and that’s terrible. Be grateful we are not like them.”

 

Do the Powers Make the Hero?

The Irreplaceable Caroline Furlong writes an excellent piece about whether the superhuman powers of a hero is what makes him a hero worth rooting for, or not:

Due to the numerous ways extraordinary faculties can be introduced into a tale, there are several conditions that an author must consider when creating powered protagonists. In today’s post, we are focusing on the most important one: whether or not strange abilities make the lead character a hero. Is it his special powers that make the sci-fi/fantasy protagonist a champion? Or are the forces that he wields less important than the character himself?

The answer to the first question should be no, because a protagonist who is only memorable for his special talents or whizz-bang gadgets is not a character. He is, rather, a prop; a device that demonstrates the author’s cool ideas in a series of happy (or unhappy) accidents. No one enjoys watching a prop being moved around the stage by the play’s director, even if he is honestly trying to save the show. They will feel sympathy for him, but nothing else. In the same manner, no one will respect or admire a writer who cannot create characters who are alive.

In order to illustrate this fact, let us compare Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Thor: The Dark World, which each have Rey and Thor as the respective lead characters. In the sequel Star Wars films Rey commands nearly cosmic Force powers; she can use the Force with almost no training whatsoever. Thor, on the other hand, is – well, the god of thunder. He can raise storms at will, he is the strongest Asgardian still living, he can survive explosive decompression and hard vacuum, and he is relatively indestructible.

Read the whole thing!

As a side note, I really love this poster of Thor: the Dark World. It really captures the sense of the heroism and adventure that Thor ought to be about.

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